Monday, 6 January 2014

If daddy were mummy

I’m picking up the girls from a sleepover at my sister’s at the end of the Christmas break. 

‘Where’s daddy?’ asks elder daughter as she dances up to the front door to greet me. She looks round to see behind me, as though over the holidays, mummy and daddy have become two halves of the same whole.

‘Daddy’s back at work today,’ I say. 

‘At work?’ she says, screwing up her face, then skips off back to the TV. 

In the car, the subject is not yet closed. 

‘Daddy used to work,’ says our three-year-old, ‘but now he doesn’t. Now, he’s at home with us.’ 

Once I’ve explained that the four of us hanging out together in front of the fire, playing games, watching films and eating chocolate is not the new status quo, I think how it really has been a wonderfully long Christmas holiday. Given a fortnight of co-hibernation with the family over the darkest days of the year, our children are now under the misapprehension they have a permanent right to two parents. Well, all change, now that the old year’s out and the New Year’s in, we parents are each back to our individual grindstones. Oh, the seasonal disruption from a traditional division of labour has been most welcome.

Sharing parental duties is good for several reasons. There are the doe-eyed ones, like daddy being there to read a bedtime story and give a goodnight kiss; and then there’s the halving of the parental load. Take one fairly representative example: I’m in the kitchen while bickering escalates next door. ‘You had a turn, it’s my turn now!’ shouts one at the other. ‘Give it to me or I’ll lock you out in the rain!’ 

‘DADDY!’ I bellow, ‘Bath time!’ There’s a diminuendo of protests as the girls disappear upstairs with my husband, and I pour two large gin and tonics. It’s ok that it’s a Monday, I tell myself, elbow in the air, because this is Christmas. 

The ever-presence of daddy over the holidays sparks a question from the girls.

‘Why don’t you go out to work mummy, while daddy looks after us?’ they ask.
Rather than tackle the answer to such a big question, I ask ‘What do you think it would be like if daddy did all mummy’s jobs, and mummy did all of daddy’s?’ 

‘Well daddy can’t cook,’ is elder daughter’s first observation. ‘We’d have to eat disgusting food. Oh no,’ she groans, ‘What if he made Toad in the Hole with real toads?’ 

‘Yuck!’ joins in younger daughter with glee, ‘Daddy says we have to go in the garden and dig for toads, and he doesn’t know we don’t really put them in our dinner!’ The revulsion is thrilling and we all enjoy again the ridiculous myth their father started years ago, when he swore to the amphibian ingredient of Toad in the Hole.

Amusing though the exchange was, the idea of daddy ‘being’ mummy has a certain pertinence. Since my second cancer diagnosis, it’s something I’ve thought through many times, wondering how my husband would possibly survive as a single working father, single-handedly finding the time to earn a crust and bring up our children. We all like to think we’re indispensable, but seriously, what on earth would life be like without me? 

‘They’d be fine!’ said a friend with a dismissive wave of her hand when I raised the subject. ‘People manage.’ But the logistics of this one just don’t add up. It would not be possible to maintain the children’s routines while holding down a job which involves being out of the house for 12 hours a day. No, something would have to change.

At the moment, the consideration of my husband’s single parenting is something of a morbid fantasy, for my days are not yet numbered. And although I jest, I’m all too aware that this crisis is real. I know of far too many fathers living without the mothers of their children, making ends meet and holding together the family as a single parent. Most of the fathers I know of have lost their partners to cancer, but there are plenty of other ways to become a widower, or a widow.

I’ve been reading a blog lately, written by the father of a little boy whose wife was killed suddenly and violently in an accident just over a year ago. was recommended by a friend, and is a wonderfully honest transcription of thoughts and feelings by a man struggling to adjust to his circumstances. The blog is intended to help other bereaved spouses find support, and I feel rather voyeuristic following the lives of this father and son when I’m privileged to have a partner. But it’s such a fascinating and valuable lesson in how to find joy in what you have, that I’m compelled to read. 

Recently, my husband and I were out to dinner with friends. One conversation led to another, and we touched on the financial value of a SAHM. The other couple, who also have two children, revealed they’ve recently invested in life insurance for their female half.

‘Imagine how much it would cost to employ someone to carry out a full-time mother’s duties,’ says other husband. ‘Cleaning, house-keeping, childcare…’ he stops before ‘whore’, but I'm sure we all think it. 

‘Are you mad?’ my husband jumps in, ‘You wouldn’t pay – you’d get another wife!’

It's a joke, of course. But in a way, he's right; if daddy were mummy, how I hope he'd find his other half. 

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